I will preface this all with the fact that I am of Canadian background and I only lived in South Korea (Jeju specifically) for a year. However, when I found out that 25YL was focusing on Horror around the Globe, I was quick to jump on Korean Horror movies.
As I stated before in another horror review that I did on Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, I am not a fan of needless and unnecessary gore. I personally cannot stand the sight of blood in person. It definitely makes for a weird moment when I tell people how much I absolutely adore Horror movies and everything associated with the genre.
Especially when you take a closer look at some Korean Horror movies such as I Saw the Devil (2010) which is renowned for how gruesome and violent it is.
But moving beyond the violence, the movie really focuses on the ethics of Korean society. It takes their cultural values of having a heavy emphasis being placed on forgiveness and genuinely creates a very warped vengeance story. It makes you question when your own personal values might be poisoned to suit whatever it is you might need at that moment like your own brand of justice.
However, motivation is always a key part of a good, dynamic character and Korean cinema does that beyond well in my opinion. Even with relatively mindless Action / Horror combinations such as Snowpiercer (2013), you have a strong lead protagonist with a strong sense of what their goal is. Even if you don’t always one hundred percent agree with how that character might go about their action plan—as in the case of I Saw the Devil—you’re always undoubtedly left with a character that is self-assured.
It makes for good storytelling and with good storytelling usually comes good characters. In The Host (2006), you have a man who’s main goal is to save his daughter, Train to Busan (2016) focuses on various characters trying to save themselves or their loved ones, and the list could go on. As an audience, we are showcased these highlighted specific values in which the characters have chosen as the most important and are asked to resonate with them. More often than not, it works.
The environment and location of schools is a staple backdrop for a lot of Korean genres. I would argue that school itself is more often portrayed in Dramas and Romances but school is the focal point in the movie Death Bell (2008) which is a combination of Battle Royale meets Saw. I’ve never personally watched it, so I can’t speak to that movie in particular, but I want to focus on one key element of that film which is utilized again and again in Korean Horror movies—students, or more accurately, children.
Children are the backbone of Korea. They’re the future generation and they’re treated as such with endless amounts of respect, love, and are celebrated by their parents, teachers, and the adults in their lives.
That’s why there should be no surprise why Korean Horror does such a wonderful job of taking such a wholesome cultural value and perverting it. In the film Snowpiercer, the audience is left to realize that the train is literally being run by children and is being used as spare parts for the engine that is failing. Children in Train to Busan are either used mercilessly by adults which causes their death or on a more positive note are what bring hope (and life) to them by song or being an expecting mother.
Critical Thinking Skills Necessary
I think one of the things I like the most about Korean Horror though is the fact that the audience is often left with questions at the end or a need to discuss what you just watched. It might be because your head is left spinning over the content of the movie, or you want to create a hypothetical and plausible end of what comes next—Korean Horror ensures you’re thinking.
It asks the audience to actively engage in a way that I don’t always find with other Horror movies. I grew up watching classics like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer but I wouldn’t say that I walked away from either of those films asking for a sequel (not that I’m complaining that I got them) or feeling the need to discuss character’s motives.
Meanwhile, Korea has given me movies like Thirst (2009) that not only give you a well thought out origin story of vampirism, but it also creates ethical dilemmas that leave you pondering what was the right decision and how things could have unraveled differently.
I’m not saying that all Korean Horror is going to make you think, nor am I saying that every single movie is going to be steeped in Korean culture, attitudes, or beliefs. Some are mindless and fun and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I encourage you to see what movies are critically acclaimed within their Box Office versus what gets out into the International market. You might be surprised by what horrors lurk on the other side of the Pacific.